So what if I’m still posting year-end lists from 2011. I may be too busy for frequent updates, but I refuse to let a good list die.
Liz Selbst’s Top 10 Pieces of Unsolicited Advice She Wanted to Give in 2010 but Bit Her Tongue Instead was posted over a year ago, yet still drives non-trivial traffic to this day. Today Liz has something different lined up. Dust off your Netflix account. Here we go.
10. Oceans (Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, DisneyNature, 2009)
The tagline of this outstanding nature documentary is “an unprecedented look beneath the sea,” which is exactly what it delivers. Containing some of the most incredible underwater footage ever caught on film, Oceans has the feel of a real-life Fantasia — some of the shots of cuttlefish hiding, pelicans diving for chum, and schools of fish demonstrating synchronicity make it hard to believe cameras this good actually exist. If this movie has a low point, it’s the unambitious narration by Pierce Brosnan, who tenderfoots around issues of marine conservation with the meek suggestion that human activity might, possibly, maybe, perhaps pose some type of threat to fragile ecological communities. But if you can ignore the generally dull and uninformative script, the scenery is all-in-all quite spectacular.
9. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, Creative Differences, 2010)
Herzog’s latest documentary takes viewers inside the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the south of France, where the French Ministry of Culture allowed a camera crew of four to shoot unprecedented footage of the oldest cave paintings known to humankind. Some of the paintings are believed to date to 30,000 BCE, yet they have been impeccably preserved. A rock slide some 25,000 years ago sealed the cave’s interiors from the elements, leaving charcoal fragments from torch wall swipes looking as if they had burned yesterday. As one expert points out, our ability to draw meaning from the paintings is in itself remarkable; these primitive drawings far outlast written documents. Whereas the rapid pace of language mutation always threatens writing’s intelligibility, we can still read and understand drawings of bison moving across a landscape from 32,000 years ago.
Herzog’s narration is aimlessly philosophical (“Who painted this half-woman, half-bison figure? What did he dream of at night?”), but that’s Herzog. This film is tighter than many of his previous works, although he threatens to derail the entire film’s project with a postscript segment in which he ponders what mutant albino alligators, deformed by nuclear wastewater, would think of the cave paintings. The score is also overbearing, distracting, and weirdly formal — the choral selections sounded more appropriate for a cathedral than a stalactite-filled cave with bear tracks and woolly mammoth paintings.
Above all, Herzog does a great job capturing much of the natural intrigue associated with these most primitive etchings simply by filming the archaeologists, art historians, and scientists who have devoted their careers to studying the cave. In one such scene, an experimental archaeologist dressed entirely in reindeer skins (as he believes the cave’s earliest inhabitants would have clothed themselves) offers a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on a flute made from the radial bone of a vulture. In another, Herzog wryly notes that a French archaeologist’s demonstration of killing horses with spear-throwing implements is not wholly convincing. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1st Discourse on Inequality: “Give civilized man but time to gather about him all his machines, and no doubt he will be an overmatch for the savage; but if you have a mind to see a contest still more unequal, place them naked and unarmed one opposite to the other; and you will soon discover the advantage there is in perpetually having all our forces at our disposal, in being constantly prepared against all events, and in always carrying ourselves, as it were, whole and entire about us.”)
[Much has been made of Herzog's choice to shoot this movie with 3-D cameras, but I watched it in 2-D and can't comment on that.]
“Werner Herzog reads Curious George”
Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (Sandia National Laboratories Report)
8. 49 Up (Michael Apted, Granada/BBC One, 2005)
The seventh installment of Michael Apted’s “longitudinal documentary” of fourteen British children, 49 Up finds the participants solidly installed in middle age. The Up series began in 1964, with Apted bringing together children from starkly different socio-economic circumstances and filming their interactions. Each movie begins with ominous music as it intones the Jesuit quotation: “Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man.” Participants are re-interviewed about their lives and re-filmed every seven years.
True to stereotypes about rigid British social class structure, many of the children correctly predict where they will be educated and how they will earn a living, even from age 7. But the series also showcases social changes Apted could not have foretold in 1964, such as the demographic expansion of the British middle class and the women’s rights movement. The entire series, taken as a whole, has undoubtedly become one of the most interesting sociographic studies ever performed.
Apted’s generous use of flashbacks and historical footage from previous years’ interviews permits viewers to jump in at any seven-year interval without being left entirely in the dark. 56 Up is expected to premiere in 2012.
7. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Bansky, Paranoid Pictures, 2010)
Is everyone who watches Bansky’s recent hoaxumentary a sucker? Maybe, but you get to see some really great footage of graffiti artists along the way. Like other Banksy works, Exit Through the Gift Shop doesn’t look uncomfortable walking the line between playful hijinks and meditative commentary. The consequences of his works seem almost to surprise Banksy, as he points out a stack of boxes of counterfeit bills in his studio that he had intended to drop from rooftops in a performance piece. As soon as he saw pedestrians on the street below scrambling to pick up the first batch, he realized his forgery of millions of British pounds was probably good enough to land him in jail for 10 years. It’s hard to call this movie serious, but it still evinces real thoughtfulness with several contemplative riffs about hype, fame, and the dollar value of art.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
6. Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim, Walden Media, 2010)
The Lottery (Madeleine Sackler, Great Curve Films, 2010)
The Cartel (Bob Bowdon, Moving Picture Institute, 2009)
A three-fer! Each of these movies alone has major holes, but education policy is important enough to warrant their inclusion on this list. Waiting for Superman covers school choice as a national issue and probably has the broadest mass appeal, while The Lottery and The Cartel deal specifically with New York City schools and corruption in the New Jersey public school system, respectively. The Lottery by far has the best soundtrack (TV on the Radio). It’s worth noting that Waiting for Superman was a $2 million project financed by the Gates Foundation.
Both Waiting for Superman and The Cartel frame America’s failing education system in the context of global competitiveness, although it has always seemed to me that broken public schools constitute a major problem in themselves, before we even consider that underinvesting in human capital is a surefire method to undercut our GDP. How much dumber American engineers and scientists are than those being educated in other countries is a connected but substantively different issue with different remedies. Both of these films succumb to the unfortunate siren call of using glib cartoons to grossly oversimplify issues such as vouchers, administrative staffing, and student tracking.
The Lottery scores major points for examining community resistance to charter schools and exploring the role of race issues in school choice. That tension culminates with a painfully awkward scene where a black city council member accuses Eva Moskowitz, white CEO of the Harlem Success Academy, of lying about living in Harlem. The Lottery loses major points for failing to mention Moskowitz’s political ambitions, including her run for Manhattan borough president and her plan to run for New York City mayor. Of the three films, The Lottery pays the most attention to the schools-to-prison pipeline, although none of the films get much traction here beyond mentioning that it would be far cheaper for society to educate at-risk youth than to shell out for their prison time. (Brick City, a television documentary about Cory Booker’s first mayoral term in Newark, New Jersey, dives in a little deeper.)
All three films posit teachers’ unions as a major obstacle to meaningful school reform. While collective bargaining and tenured contracts definitely pose challenges both to removing ineffective teachers and to providing adequate compensation for excellent teachers, the knee-jerk condemnation of organized labor is appalling (remember “the folks who brought you the weekend”?). And if you want to get really worked up about the money trail in education policy, step back a bit and mull over who stands to benefit from vilifying the teachers’ unions.
Steven Brill, “The Rubber Room: The Battle Over New York City’s Worst Teachers”
Sunny Ladd and Edward Fiske, “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?”
Sam Dillon, “Behind Grass Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates.”
5. The Cove (Louie Psihoyos, Oceanic Preservation Society, 2009)
The Cove is highly compelling testimony from Ric O’Barry, the former dolphin trainer for Flipper (star of the eponymous television show), whose suicide forced O’Barry to contemplate the inhumanity of dolphin captivity and spurred a lifetime of dolphin advocacy. A so-called “eco-thriller,” The Cove follows O’Barry and his team on a covert operation to expose dolphin hunting in remote Japanese fishing villages. The effort was bankrolled by Jim Clark (Netscape founder and billionaire turned ocean preservation enthusiast), which lends the film very high production value, including such purchases as military-grade underwater cameras and genetic testing of commercial fish products.
The Cove is fairly forward in its suggestion of state collusion to cover up dolphin hunting, bribery, and coercive behavior during negotiation of cooperative international fisheries agreements. Perhaps proving its own point about the crucial geopolitical importance of whale hunting, The Cove‘s producers are now mired in a number of messy international lawsuits. But you’ll never look at supermarket sushi the same way again.
4. Man on Wire (James Marsh, Magnolia Pictures, 2008)
Before the World Trade Center towers had even been built, Philippe Pétit dreamed of conquering the air and dancing in the space between them. “The object of my dream doesn’t even exist yet,” he explains in the film. As a small boy reading magazines in a dentist’s office in France, he comes across an artist’s rendition of the towers (including the Eiffel Tower for scale, naturally). He carries the picture with him until August of 1974, when he schlepps hundreds of pounds of gear up the South Tower, shoots three-quarter inch cable some 200 feet across to the North Tower, and the next morning captures the attention of all of downtown Manhattan as he dances in the air.
Even though the audience knows all along that Pétit eventually succeeds in his quest, the story of the crew’s extensive preparations and pitfalls along the way still manages to unfold with suspense. Man on Wire unequivocally succeeds in conveying the sheer excitement of his stunt. It doesn’t hurt that Pétit is charming and oh-so-French, proving more the good-natured provocateur or whimsical jester than adrenaline junkie or image-obsessed stuntman in this screen test.
I am far from first in noting that this movie harkens back to a nostalgic era in which Pétit, after being apprehended, accepts a plea bargain to provide a few hours of magic tricks for children rather than being sentenced as a domestic terrorist. (Related documentary: If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which explores Daniel McGowan’s arrest and prosecution as a domestic terrorist for setting fire to timber companies’ offices in the Pacific northwest). As a final note, Marsh does an excellent job handling historical footage of a skyline now literally and symbolically ripped apart — Man on Wire respectfully navigates paying homage to the World Trade Center without letting 9/11 overshadow Pétit’s story.
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
3. Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, Sony Pictures Classics, 2010)
The winner of last year’s Academy Award for a documentary film, Inside Job is a blistering, straightforward takedown of the financial services industry. In five tightly organized acts, Ferguson details the broad sweep of deregulatory practices, perverse incentive structures, the rise of exotic mortgage products and complex securitization schemes, and the revolving door between politically appointed Treasury officials and major banks that played a role in the global financial meltdown of 2008. Ferguson pays particular attention to exposing the pervasive link between “impartial” academic economists whose research is used to justify high-level policy decisions and the payrolls of investment banks.
For reasons of running time and trying to avoid putting the audience to sleep, this film doesn’t cover many financial instruments in great depth. If words like collateralized debt obligations, commercial paper markets, or interbank lending are already part of your day-to-day vocabulary, you are not the target audience. Ferguson’s documentary is brimming with populist anger at large banks, and he builds a persuasive case for the sentiment that persistent regulatory failures allowed massive private profits at tremendous public cost. He is relentless and direct in interviews, surprising many of his high-profile subjects with the frankness of his questions.
Matt Damon’s sober narration is convincing but felt a little flat at times. The movie as a whole comes across as pretty humorless, but then again, the subject is fairly grim. But you do get to see Eliot Spitzer suggest, with a totally straight face, that prostitutes “or other personal vices” could have been used to entrap more Wall Street executives into admitting professional wrongdoing, so the movie is not totally without hilarious moments.
Matt Taibbi, Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History
2. Restrepo (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, National Geographic Entertainment, 2010)
Less than one percent of Americans currently living have ever served in the US military. At the same time as the average American has grown increasingly disconnected from military life and the experience of war, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have shouldered more repeated, extended, and stop-loss tours than any previous generation of service members. The US military isn’t exactly shouting this from the rooftops of the Pentagon, but for the third straight year, suicide was more deadly to troops and veterans than all of the combined combat fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a story about war that needs to be told in there.
Restrepo‘s vérité footage lets the events of war and the soldiers speak for themselves, with minimal interference. The film follows 15 American soldiers (2nd Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team) spending one year trying to hold a remote outpost in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan. Junger has written elsewhere about the strategic importance of the Korangal with respect to US operations in Afghanistan, but if there is such a thing an a non-political war documentary, this is it.
Sabrina Tavernise, “As Fewer Americans Serve, Growing Gap Is Found Between Civilians and Military”
Kristina Wong, “New Report: Military Losing the Battle Against Suicide”
Sebastian Junger, “Into the Valley of Death”
1. Gasland (Josh Fox, New Video Group, 2010)
In the midst of the largest natural gas boom in recent history, hydrologic fracturing (“fracking”) is arguably the most pressing environmental issue facing the US. Fracking principally involves pumping hundreds of gallons of chemical slurry underground to fracture bedrock shale, releasing large stores of natural gas. This turns out to be a particularly nasty extraction method that poses extremely dangerous environmental health risks. As Josh Fox reports, typically about half of the water trucked in to a well is ever removed from the site. The rest leaches into groundwater tables, intermingles with the drinking water supply, or off-gases from evaporation storage pits of “produced” water (the industry’s term for water contaminated after injection).
None of this activity is federally regulated — underground injection of fracking fluids doesn’t fall under the Clean Water Act’s oversight of surface water discharges, distributed drilling sites do not constitute major emissions sources for Clean Air Act regulation, and fracking is specifically exempted from compliance with Safe Drinking Water Act provisions in a statute known colloquially as the “Halliburton loophole.” Fox pulls no punches in his indictment of major gas and oil companies, including testimony from Congressional hearings about the specific chemical makeup and alleged safety of fracking fluids. He lambasts Dick Cheney for his role in shepherding the Energy Policy Act of 2005 through Congress. GOP leadership recently invoked rare procedural rules and directed Capitol Police to arrest Fox, who was filming a House subcommittee meeting on fracking for an upcoming sequel to Gasland. You don’t have to be a constitutional expert to think that democracy is threatened when journalists are forcibly removed from hearing public testimony.
The intertitles sometimes distract from the story and some might accuse Fox’s morose narration of droning. The beautiful, rugged scenery of landscapes being destroyed by natural gas extraction are Gasland‘s most moving assets, although viewers are unlikely to forget the incredible images of citizens lighting their tap water on fire. The cover shot of a gas-masked Fox playing banjo in the foothills of the Grand Tetons against a backdrop of drilling sites encroaching on natural wildlife corridors is a nice nod to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Lastly, those horned-rim glasses are kind of hot.
Alexander Zaitchik, “The Fight Over Fracking“